Every day at dusk during the fasting month, over a hundred residents get a free meal to break their fast in a garage-turned-dining room on Jl. Dr. Wahidin, Lawang district, Malang regency, East Java. This is an 18-year-old tradition maintained by Paguyuban Metta, a Buddhist association in the city.
Residents of all ages from Lawang and its vicinity lined up patiently at the location last week, only 15 meters from Bodhimandala Sanggar Suci and Pondok Metta temples. Warm tea and plates had been prepared as the residents waited for adzan maghrib (call to dusk prayer)
It was raining hard. The call to prayer from the Al-Ikhlas Mosque, located some 20 meters away, was faintly heard amid the pounding rain, as the line started moving in an orderly fashion and people were served rice with chicken soup, an egg and shrimp chips.
“I always attend breaking of the fast gatherings as there is free food,” Rupi’ah, 35, candidly said. With her 5-year-old daughter, Rupi’ah spends Rp 15,000 (US$1.13) daily to reach the location, 5 kilometers from her village in Singosari.
Rupi’ah is a regular recipient of meals offered by Paguyuban Metta. Those lining up for free meals are usually poor residents and street singers, but everybody is welcome, including travelers. Wahyu, 45, a motorcyclist who was heading to Surabaya, learned about the event accidentally.
“I was taking shelter from the rain when I was unexpectedly offered some food to break the fast,” Wahyu said, adding that he was grateful for the substantial meal after his cold ride that late afternoon.
Most people savored their food while sitting on the floor while some others used the chairs. They were allowed to have seconds while cookies were distributed to be brought home. Meals were served until it was time for Isha (evening) prayer.
Head of Paguyuban Metta and coordinator of the event, Banthe Winantea Listiahadi, said the breaking of the fast gatherings began during the monetary crisis in 1997-1998.
“Staple food prices were soaring and people couldn’t afford to make purchases,” the 68-year-old Pondok Metta Temple leader said.
Thousands of members of Paguyuban Metta hold social gatherings. Winantea recounted that 18 years ago, lots of snacks were left over after a social gathering during the fasting month, so he offered some to a woman walking past the temple.
“In Javanese, I offered her some snacks. However, she was in a hurry to get home to break the fast,” he said.
The former head of Bodhimandala Sanggar Suci introduced the idea of offering free food to those breaking the fast with fellow association members, to be funded by arisan (social gathering) money.
Winantea also raised funds from other Buddhist members in the association and other religious followers. He also encouraged interfaith volunteers to help prepare the dishes and drinks for the breaking of the fast. Eventually, meals were offered every day of the fasting month. At first, only a number of people lined up for meals. However, after news spread of the free meals, hundreds were seen lining up daily.
“Once, as many as 300 people came up, forcing us to buy food from local stalls to cover the shortage,” he said.
The event offers various kinds of dishes cooked by association members, who hail from Malang and other cities such as Jombang, Batu and Surabaya and take turns preparing food each afternoon.
Winantea believes everybody, particularly the disadvantaged, deserve decent meals. He also guarantees that the food served is halal.
“I’ve studied this matter from books on Islamic teachings,” said the vegetarian. Several days before the fasting month, he also consults local clerics and community figures, besides notifying security personnel to deter undesirable developments.
His association also holds charity events outside the fasting month and distributes rice on Buddha’s Day of Enlightenment.
The man, who was born in Tegal, Central Java, said fewer people showed up for this year’s breaking of the fast gatherings, but that did not discourage them. The annual program, he said, was a manifestation of tolerance between religious communities.
“This is all for the pure purpose of serving humanity,” he said.